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A most excellent first year

Dec. 14, 2010, 4:38 p.m. (ET)
The U.S. Olympic Committee’s announcement Tuesday of the addition of five genuinely impressive new directors to its board caps a remarkable year.

All five would seem to be incredibly constructive additions. They promise to bring not only breadth, depth, institutional experience and even ingenuity to the board. The newcomers include the likes of Robbie Bach, the former president of Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division, as well as Dave Ogrean, who over 30 years has seemingly seen and done it all in American Olympic circles and is now executive director of USA Hockey.

That the USOC, which for most of its own 32-year history has been wracked by dissension and dysfunction, could identify and recruit five all-stars for its board is testament to — hold on here, this is gotcha kind of stuff — process and structure.

Don’t be bored. Process and structure are the product of leadership.

And, in the persons of Larry Probst, the USOC chairman, and Scott Blackmun, the chief executive, the USOC can be said to have real leadership.

It’s a year, more or less, since Blackmun took over the job — that is, since Probst hired him.

Before the USOC board convenes Thursday in Redwood City, Calif., for the meeting at which the five new members will be formally approved, it’s worth taking a moment to review the year that was.

And if you allow again for a slight elasticity in the calendar, there’s a powerfully symbolic way to show how far things have come, and there’s an easy way to explain how and why things have indeed come so far.

Scene one: It’s Copenhagen, October 2009. Chicago has just gotten booted in the first round of voting for the 2016 Summer Games despite the personal plea to the International Olympic Committee by the president of the United States of America.

Scene two: The 21 Club in New York, earlier this month. The USOC awards its first Simon Award — named for William E. Simon, a former USOC president — to Dan Doctoroff, the head of the New York 2012 bid, and to Pat Ryan, head of the Chicago 2016 bid. Eminently deserved, and the delightful thing is that both would accept.

That, in large measure, is because of the current USOC leadership.

And here is the secret to that leadership:

Probst is not — repeat, not — an all-seeing, all-knowing, Oz-like chairman. He hired Blackmun to run the USOC and, in fact, Blackmun runs it.

That is, Probst and the board set policy. Day-to-day, Blackmun runs the place.

Because Probst allows him to act as a chief executive, Blackmun actually can get things get done. And what he has gotten done is truly impressive.

Here is a partial list of Blackmun’s accomplishments this year. Again, this is not — repeat, not — an A-to-Z list of every accomplishment:

– Major sponsor deals with Proctor & Gamble and BMW, and in this economic climate.

– Repairing and recasting of relationships with national governing body officials.

– Splitting sport performance into its two logical subsets, facilities and high-performance.

– Driving long-term strategic vision. It’s all there in the board minutes, which are posted online.

– That the board minutes are online is evidence of the open, accessible and transparent culture the USOC is trying to foster. In the same way that Probst empowers Blackmun, Blackmun lets communications chief Pat Sandusky do his thing.

– Repairing and reframing of the key relationship with NBC. Blackmun and Probst have forged a solid working relationship with NBC Universal Sports & Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol, who had been a strident USOC critic in late 2009 but appeared at the USOC assembly in September, 2010, to offer praise. Blackmun also has worked with NBC to jointly sell the banking category,  an unprecedented marketing partnership.

– $18 million deal with the IOC for so-called “Games costs” that sets the table for negotiation and potential resolution of longstanding dispute over marketing and broadcasting revenue splits.

– Low-key, JFK-esque “ask not what the movement can do for you but what you can do for the movement” approach to the IOC and, for that matter, to international relations.

Nearly once a month Probst or Blackmun has been traveling abroad, or both for that matter, and not just for the Olympic version of a drive-by. Probst hung out at the Assn. of National Olympic Committee meetings in Acapulco in October for a week. Blackmun — despite having shoulder surgery immediately beforehand — was there nearly as long.

For anyone’s first year on the job, that list makes for a pretty good record of accomplishment.

At the USOC — it’s nothing short of a culture change, and downright historic.

And it’s only the first year.

Oh, and by the way — the U.S. team won a record 37 medals at the Vancouver Olympics this past February.

Bring on 2011.

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